By Canon James Mustard
Eighteen years after Civil Partnerships became legal, ten years after the Church of England’s Pilling Report recommended that they be blessed, eight years after the first English same sex marriage and, in response to the above, five years after the House of Bishops launched its Living in Love and Faith listening and learning process, we have the first comments from the House of Bishops and a set of draft prayers.
The headline is that it will be possible for Same- Sex Marriages and Civil Partnerships to be recognised in church with public blessing, both at stand-alone services, or in the context of a Sunday morning or “regular” act of worship. Though it has taken ten years to realise since it was recommended, this is still an enormous, and for some, seismic, development. It will be too much for some, who argue that “to bless sin” is an outrageous hypocrisy. It will be too little for others, who might have hoped for same-sex marriage to be conducted by the church, in the same way that it marries heterosexual couples. For me, as someone who is in a same-sex relationship and, who over eighteen years of ordained ministry has seen these discussions go round interminably, it is the outcome I expected, if not perhaps what I had hoped for. But it is gratifying that my relationship, and those of others in this community and city, can now be the focus of public prayer, thanksgiving and blessing.
It’s important to note that the Bishops are still differentiating between heterosexual and same-sex couples, but the differences are less marked. And one very significant development has been to acknowledge that sex before or outside of marriage is a reality, where the church should be affirming that which is good in those relationships, without changing the church’s historic teaching. Indeed the whole response treads that line consistently: to uphold that which is traditional, whilst acknowledging that relationships which fall outside a traditional understanding of sex and marriage may be good (whether they are still “sinful” is not addressed).
One clear prohibition is the use of any texts from the C of E Marriage Service in the context of a same-sex blessing. So there are sample services too, for a Service of the Word and two examples of Blessing within the Eucharist. The marriage-text prohibition means familiar prayers have been rewritten to distance them from a more traditional service, and new phrases introduced. Mostly this is successful, and the language of relationships as “pilgrimage” and “journeying through life” is apt and a welcome addition. There are some unusual, but insightful turns of phrase, too: God of love and mercy, look with kindness on your servants N and N. Give them wisdom and devotion in their life together, that each may be to the other a strength in need, a counsellor in perplexity, a comfort in sorrow and a companion in joy.
“Counsellor in perplexity” sums up just about all parties in all relationships I know – including the Chapter!
There are some disappointments and uncertainties. It is disappointing that, in the extensive suite of materials provided by the bishops for the blessing of civil partnerships or same-sex marriages, the terms “Civil Partnership” or “(Samesex) Marriage” do not appear, suggesting some ongoing coyness, and not quite the “radical new inclusion” the Archbishop of Canterbury promised in 2017 when launching “Living in Love and Faith”. There is still uncertainty about the status of same-sex marriage within the church, particularly for clergy. Currently, if I were to marry, my licence to minister could be withdrawn. More work on clergy discipline in the “Pastoral Guidance” that will replace the current “1991 Issues in Human Sexuality” in the light of this statement is promised, and needed.
One outcome of this process is a superabundance of material that no one seemed to be seeking, but which is welcome and wholesome, nevertheless. So, alongside Prayers of Dedication and Thanksgiving for a Couple, we have Prayers for God’s Blessing, Prayers for the Sealing of a Covenanted Friendship, Prayers which may be said with or by a couple, Prayers for a relationship entering a new stage, Prayers for a Household and Family.
Finally, there is an apology “for the ways in which the Church of England has treated LGBTQI+ people – both those who worship in our churches and those who do not. For the times we have rejected or excluded you, and those you love, we are deeply sorry… We affirm, publicly and unequivocally, that LGBTQI+ people are welcome and valued: we are all children of God.” While it is welcome, it has been said before, and the proof of such statements is always in 3 the pudding. For example, in 2014, the College of Bishops declared that it would “Reject homophobia whenever and wherever it is found”. Yet in 2022, the Diocese of London was accused of “underlying homophobia” in the decisions made that led to the tragic death, in 2021, of Fr Alan Griffin, a regular worshipper in this Cathedral. No one has been disciplined, offered a resignation, or taken responsibility for the circumstances of his death. There is no mention, also, of the historic missionary strategies of the Church of England overseas, and the extent to which homophobia in the Anglican communion finds its DNA in the Church of England.
Nevertheless, overall, this statement and the resources provided are very significant. The bishops were never going to please everyone, let alone each other, with this work. But it is a step forward. I just wish they had felt able, in the materials they commend for our use, to name the elephants in the room: Civil Partnership and Same-Sex Marriage. It does not seem too much to ask, and it sits uneasily with their preceding apologies.